Prototyping for Social Impact: A Q&A with Nathalie Collins, Senior Design Lead at

Posted by in Startup Skills

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What is prototyping?  If you’ve taken Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered Design offered by and +Acumen, you know that getting out into the field and testing tangible things is key to developing original and potentially path-breaking solutions.  Now we’re excited to launch a new course with that will give you a practical introduction to prototyping.

We sat down with Nathalie Collins, a Senior Design Lead at’s Amplify Program to learn about her path from building foam prototypes in grad school to crafting new models of pediatric care in rural Nepal. We asked her for the best advice she has for first-time makers, and the most surprising thing she ever learned from building a prototype (it involves a card game similar to Taboo!).  Whether you are an NGO worker, a teacher, an engineer, or someone who just wants to make a difference in your community, you can learn from Nathalie’s tips about how to make your ideas real.

What is a prototype?

Nathalie: A prototype is an experiment that helps us answer questions about what we might eventually make.  Sometimes a prototype can be a trial run of the end product, but a lot of times it consists of answering a critical question that we need to understand in order to evolve our idea.

Why do you use prototyping at

Nathalie: At, we talk about bringing something from a place of theory to a place of tangibility.  Many people have a bias towards sitting in a room and thinking abstractly about a solution.  Early in a design process, we use prototypes as a way to think.  Often physically making something helps us think about it in a different way. It helps us answer questions we didn’t even know to ask. Later in the process, we use prototypes for validation.  By putting stuff into the world, we get more feedback from the people who will ultimately be using our products and services.

When we’re first building prototypes, they might look nothing like what the ultimate service looks like.  Recently, we were prototyping group pediatric health experience in rural Nepal and trying to figure out how we can make healthcare more available for babies in remote villages.  We wanted to figure out how we could get more people involved – not just mothers, but also kids and elders.  We strapped an iPad containing health information onto a tree in the village and stepped back to see who would interact with it and how.  The kids ended up being the ones who approached the iPad and we learned that they could be an interesting vehicle to stimulate conversation about health topics.  Ultimately, our goal was not to design a kiosk in a village, but to understand how conversations about health happen.  The prototype got us closer to those insights.

You’ve built and tested prototypes with communities all across the world.  Can you describe a recent experience where a prototype triggered a really powerful insight?

Nathalie: We recently worked with Kidogo, a social enterprise working to improve childcare in the slums around Nairobi (+Acumen students too!).  We were trying to help them figure out what their business in a box could look like.  How might they onboard informal caregivers and improve the quality of care that they offer? One of the services we tried out was a lending library for toys and curriculum.  We would drop off a box of toys related to “animals” or “families” to different caregivers and then swap the boxes a week later.  We expected to learn details about how the childcare centers were using the toys, but it actually gave us a lot of insights into their business model.  At one point, one of the women gave the box back because she was worried that she would have to pay for it!  We realized it was more important that she stabilized her income first, rather than focusing on the toys.  In the end we created a strategy with Kidogo around business services.  We wouldn’t have landed on this strategy if we hadn’t first tried the toy prototype.

Can you describe a time you prototyped an experience?  How was that different from prototyping a product?

Nathalie: There are many similarities between prototyping products and prototyping experiences.  Even when you’re prototyping a product, there are experiential elements to be tested, however, the difference is in the materials and timeframe.  Often when you prototype a product, you’re working with cardboard or found materials.  For example, when we were building a health information kiosk in a village in Nepal using an iPad, we used local materials and wood to build an enclosure that could hold it on a tree.  When you prototype experiences, you’re thinking in terms of time.  You have to think about how you will get a group of people together, how you will facilitate, and how you will think through the content like a role play.

We’ve also heard that you can develop prototypes at different levels of “fidelity.”  What does this mean?

Nathalie: Building a website is a great example for explaining the concept of fidelity.  Often when we’re thinking about designing a digital interface, we start with just sketches.  For example, we worked with a group of folks from Congo, Nigeria, and Kenya on how to match caregivers with children. We ultimately wanted to build a website with caregiver profiles.  But the first prototype we developed was simply drawn on Post-its with markers.  We were able to put our sketches in front of people and gain feedback within an hour.  You can iterate on sketches that way.  Then there are great prototyping tools for starting to make it interactive. For example, if you’re building an app, you can use Keynote or Invision to bring your sites to life before writing a line of code. When you get your prototype to a place that feels pretty solid, you can start to create full color layouts in Photoshop and then start to put that in HTML or Java.  You want to learn what’s not working early so that you don’t waste time and energy later.

How do you know it’s time to move from sketches to a higher fidelity prototype?

Nathalie: Well, sometimes you will just be bound by deadlines!  You have to get a project done so you have to move on.  But, a good indicator is when people start giving you feedback on smaller details.  That means you can probably move to the next stage because you are reaching a point of refinement.

Can you remember the first prototype you ever made?  How have your methods changed since this?

Nathalie: I studied product design in graduate school so some of my first prototypes were made out of foam core and they were very physical.  I used to think that most prototypes would be physical.  For example, if I was going to design a chair, I’d focus on figuring out the form and dimensions.  But I’ve since realized that prototypes can be so much more.  You can prototype services by building a booth where something will take place or you can prototype a process using a technique called bodystorming where we use our own bodies to block out where things will take place.  Or, when I’m in a rural village, we ask for people to pay for services like water delivery and that in itself is a prototype.  I realized over time that prototypes can be in any medium.

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What mistakes do you commonly see first-time prototypers making? 

Nathalie: People assume that prototypes need to be their best guess at what a product or service is going to be.  So they try to prototype the entire thing instead of asking very specific questions that a prototype can help to answer.  They get stuck asking: “Is it working or not?”  Actually, you don’t want to ask a yes or no question.  Instead, the question you want to answer is: “What can we learn from this and what does it inspire us to do next?”

Are there any things you should keep in mind if you’re prototyping with people from low resource communities or while working in a different cultural context?

Nathalie: In those contexts, prototyping can be more helpful than interviewing because it breaks down the language barrier.  If you create something you can see and interact with, it brings the designer and the user to a place of commonality much faster.  For example, when we were in Nepal, we tried to figure out what brands mean to people.  We created mood boards—a collection of colors, text and images or shapes.  We then asked people to point to the brand images that felt more kind, trustworthy, or happy.  These mood boards started a conversation we could never do in words alone.

What is the most surprising thing you ever learned from prototyping something?

Nathalie: We just did a project in Nepal that floored us completely.  We set up a prototype to talk about group pediatric care.  We invited a group of women together to watch a video on how to look for warning signs in babies when something is wrong.  To prototype interactive ways to get them involved in conversation, we created a Taboo-like game of cards with words and illustrations for things like fever or diarrhea.  We wanted them to see how they could bring the conversation back home where they often live with their husband’s family and siblings.  At the end of playing that game, we gave them their own set of cards to take home.  But they told us they wouldn’t actually play them at home so we thought the prototype failed.  However, we quickly began to see that mothers handed the cards to kids in the village.  And the kids were actually the ones carrying the babies around!  Pretty soon we had a scene of children ages 5-15 carrying babies and looking at cards really intently and reading what was on them.

That was a huge aha moment.  We realized these kids might actually be a better vehicle for bringing health conversations into homes. This same thing happened when we strapped the iPad prototype to the tree.  The kids were the ones who interacted with it first.  By the end, we had a little kid explaining how to diagnose jaundice.  He could be a huge factor in helping to improve the life of his brother or sister.

You’re a Senior Design Lead at  That sounds like an amazing job.  What prepared you for this role?

Nathalie: My background has been a mix of growing up in a variety of cultures with my family and working in the nonprofit world and for a number of commercial clients in design.  My role is a combination of building empathy by being out in the field and understanding the effects of products and services on communities.  I also need to be able to work intimately with partners to create long-lasting relationships.  I’ve also found it essential to develop a mindset of never getting attached to a single solution.  This is why we prototype a number of different concepts at once.  If you put one idea in front of people, they say that they love it.  But if you put multiple ideas forward, you get richer insights from the comparison.  We talk about creating sacrificial concepts so we don’t get attached to them.  We’re very ready to kill our own babies to get to a solution that works even better.  Working on these projects makes me remember that no matter how much experience I have, you can never predict what will happen next.  We embrace ambiguity and have a whole lot of faith that it will work out in the end.  And it does.

Why should people take the new Prototyping course from

Nathalie: I think about prototyping as a way of life at this point.  It’s a mindset that I think we forget as we get older.  To get an answer you just have to try something.  Prototyping at its core is a call to action to try something.  It helps you create something in the world so that other people can react to it and it’s not just in your head.  It’s a way to get to a solution faster, together.

Now it’s time for our call to action. Sign up for the Design Kit: Prototyping course today.

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